From the importance of regions, the zeitgeist in the Rhineland, to a new range of collectors and the question as to how, where and with whom galleries should be communicating today – all that in my extensive interview with the gallery owner and spokesman of the Cologne Galleries and co-organizer of the DC Open: Thomas Rehbein in Cologne.
I’m discovering that at art fairs the majority of collectors belong to the 60+ age range. Does that correspond to your observations – on the one hand as a gallery owner and on the other as one of the chairmen of the Cologne Galleries?
We have many collectors between the ages of 40 and 70. It’s pretty obvious really: The children have left home, the parents once again have time for themselves and a certain budget that they can spend on art. The result: They start visiting museums and art galleries. Being interested in the art market and art has something to do with leisure time, a certain educational level and curiosity. That’s also part of why as a gallery we are on the 1st floor because we want to address people who are really interested in art and consciously decide to pay the gallery a visit.
Photo: Simon Vogel
With reference to the Rhineland let me add this:
We’re living here in the lap of luxury.
Just remember that the Rhineland is one of the oldest art market locations far and wide – back then, when other locations hadn’t even started to think about having a fair, Cologne had already been hosting one since 1965. Moreover, the number of museums in the Rhineland is very large: if one also bears in mind that the museums located here all attract many visitors, then there must be an art fair clientele that cares about and is interested in art. Major art collections have existed here since the 30s; the museums are based on private collections, and this makes it evident that one generation hands down its interest to the next.
I think that at the moment it is mainly the older generations who are interested in collecting art. The transparency offered by the Internet leads – for example through an advertising spot – to a clientele being addressed which previously might not have interested itself in art, but one which goes to events like Art Cologne, DC Open, Art Düsseldorf.
In other words, you are truly witnessing at this very time a shift in target groups?
Yes, the shift, in my opinion, relates not so much to age but is taking place on a wide front. Through the many blogs and digital portals that exist, it’s, of course, easier for people who do not know their way around art to gain their initial information from a blog.
Because the so-called threshold fear of entering a gallery, visiting Art Cologne or a museum is still very high.
I always thought this would gradually wane thanks to a new self-confidence, in accordance with how intensively one interests oneself in a subject, wants to come to terms with it in a very specific manner, – and yet people continue to have this threshold fear, because art is a different domain clad somehow in an elitist garb. These are all things that we as gallery owners – with the task of making art accessible – have to think about: What is my approach like, what is my language like, what impression do I make, how open am I, how do the people who approach me really see themselves, what level do I start at with them, …? That’s why we find gallery work so important.
We can still remember the times when people at art fairs went up to a certain picture and said: I’ll buy that, send me the bill, and then promptly disappeared. Those were the golden times back in the 2000s. Today the situation has changed, which, actually, I think is rather good. Because as a result of this change one is forced to go up to one’s clientele and to open oneself up to their needs.
In other words, conveying content is once again playing a bigger role?
Galleries have always been the conveyors of art, which is why art gallery owners are and were called in German the “draft horses” of the art business because they do the hard work of drawing people’s attention to the artists through contacts, visits to art studios, locally etc. These details, which galleries now have to develop again, weren’t necessary for the 70s/80s/90s because everyone seemed to be interested in art. People stormed the art fairs just as today people are fixated on the iPhone, for example. This feeling of freedom – suddenly one could buy art and invest in art – came, back then, from a genuine delight in art. Through pecuniary aspects which have a global impact, and unforeseen situations which have also happened in the art market, for example, Achenbach, Gurlitt, confidence, and trust slowly ebbed away.
To return to the situation that we once enjoyed we have to, in my opinion, instil our clientele with a sense of trust in us.
The means, media, educational concepts, the individual changes one uses to achieve that, are, in contrast, a quite different question. We have found it highly regrettable that those collectors who ten years ago were still only 50 or 60 and sometimes with no children, who are interested in art and without a partner, suddenly stop collecting art. And, of course, we do ask ourselves: How do we fill the gap, who can replace them – for a long time we had a vacuum because we simply didn’t know: Where is the new clientele coming from? In such cases, you have to be very purposeful in your approach.
Up until 2009, we staged eight to ten art fairs annually. Of course, the clientele base increases if one is moving around the world. The downside is that one loses some degree of contact with the region, but it is interesting that one then becomes part of a global network. When the crash came in 2009 and many people stopped going to art fairs, we thought about how things would continue. So we went to art fairs as visitors and observed who made up the visiting public, spoke with colleagues and, in this way, quite simply developed our own research methods, which resulted in the following questions: Which fairs do we find interesting, which artists do we want to continue to represent, where are the contacts we want to develop in the years ahead?
Photo: Eva Karl
Let’s turn to the DC Open, where you’re also involved: In how far has the dialogue between Düsseldorf and Cologne changed in the last few years as a result of this initiative?
It’s like this – the DC Open didn’t come into being because some people said that Cologne and Düsseldorf have to communicate with each other. This was a story that began in the 90s when many galleries decided to relocate from Cologne to Berlin: Esther Schipper, Scheibler, Hetzler, Rudolf Zwirner – and we saw how one gallery after another moved to Berlin and opened premises there. People came from all over the world to Berlin to the abc or the Gallery Weekend. We thought about this: What can we do? To stay on the radar. That is the background to the DC Open: To get back what certain galleries had taken to Berlin. The DC Open was the best approach.
Together with Art Cologne, there were now two events every year which put Cologne at the center of the international art scene. It was the place one went to. In this way, a communication platform has been created, and specifically between Cologne and Düsseldorf. You are right in saying that the two locations always had their problems communicating with one another, but that lies in the past, actually 500 years ago … (both laugh)
In the meantime, the DC Open is perceived as an event representing a whole region. We realized back then when Microsoft located here in 2009 and we heard in the Chairman’s speech that regions are now interesting, not cities any longer. Because regions, through their diversity, have a variety of skills and a whole range of things to offer. That was the point when we had to say:
We’ll have to think bigger, go beyond individual locations.
The DC Open was greeted with euphoria by politicians – one didn’t want to participate financially, but being there mattered. (laughs) In the meantime, the situation is that sponsors approach us, because at a weekend 20,000–25,000 people travel to the region, and do so exclusively for the galleries. That’s exactly the intention: not only as is the case with Art Cologne, bringing people together at a single location, but here in the city and the surroundings, making life and the gallery milieu come alive. That is why, on Saturday evening, a dinner also takes place to create a mélange where curators, collectors, and artists can get to know each other. In the meantime, we are receiving inquiries from people in Paris and London as to when the next DC Open is due to take place because they simply don’t want to miss it.
To what extent can one say then that the Rhineland region has managed to assert itself over Berlin in the last few years?
One can say that without hesitation. When I look at the development in Berlin over the last few years, what I see is an increase in rents and the cost of living. The first decade of the new millennium was great for artists wanting to move to Berlin because even the ones with a relatively low income could buy a studio with the help of bank loans. Today that’s no longer possible. The overabundance of art in Berlin is, of course, huge. Because there are so many galleries, there is also a lot of in-fighting. We in the Rhineland can say from experience: When in-fighting begins and when this is communicated to the outside, then it very soon becomes extremely unpleasant …
For many artists who live in the Rhineland and need an extra job to supplement their income, there are enough possibilities which, in contrast to Berlin, are well paid. In addition, there is ample living accommodation in the Rhineland. Nor should the tradition in the Rhineland of building up an art collection be underestimated; it’s something that in this form is quite unique worldwide. For these reasons, the Rhineland with all its potential and opportunities has become interesting again.
… so for the time being at least the Rhineland is not so problematical despite the fact that the old collectors are no longer buying art while you’re waiting for others to come along and fill their shoes?
Of course, there are young collectors who are interested in museums and Art Societies – people who get together and travel to museums at the weekend or get involved in societies sponsoring various art-related activities. This region has a culture which is simply not present in this form elsewhere in Germany. That is why I used the words “lap of luxury” in reference to this cultural area, something which we as gallery owners can continue to build on. If you look back, then you recognize that there were visionary art gallery owners in this region who at that time invested in and promoted the artists in the Rhineland who are today internationally established. If one bears in mind that someone like Ludwig with his visionary stance had more Pop Art artists than MoMA has, then you can see what sort of climate prevailed back then …
… and also the attitude to art …
… exactly. This was coming and going between artists, curators, and collectors. The relations between them were very close – and they remain so today –, but because this was the beginning there was a special spirituality among like-minded souls and a huge amount of curiosity. There are still collectors here in the Rhineland who have been continuously overlooked.
There are collections in the Rhineland which would make “anyone’s jaw drop”!
There are many collections which are not accessible to the public because the very act of putting them together is a personal passion which one doesn’t wish to display to everyone. This very distinctive sort of discretion is very big in the Rhineland and Belgium. In Berlin, everything seems so open and transparent, but this, in the final analysis, revolves around the questions of who is the fastest, biggest, best or most expensive. Since the art scene has been around for so long, the collector in Cologne, or from the Rhineland, is somewhat more “detached and calmer” with regard to the whole art market movement.
In which direction is your idea of an “exhibition area” moving?
I don’t think I know whether I can still work with the idea …
… I have to go from a physical exhibition area to a virtual gallery area. This will change. The physical area will continue to be quite conservative, as it is now, but the virtual area which a gallery offers and has to offer will change completely and become larger…In the 90s galleries had an artist’s archives and looked after the artist’s whole library. We’ve reduced this and handed it over to the artist. We still ask for books, but forward inquiries to the artist. Because, in the meantime, the virtual space which we want to build up via networking, website, newsletter etc. has become much more important. The research potential, which once existed and was made available to a student or a curator who came into the gallery and wanted to take a look at the library, has changed completely because now the contents are available online – in other words, this area doesn’t have to be looked after any longer.
One enters the virtual area – we are working on this at the moment because this theme has to be handled very sensitively: There is still the older clientele who would like to have an invitation and a catalog. In the meantime, everything runs in a parallel fashion, the networking between Instagram, Facebook, and website. Then come the fine details: Which blog do we add links to etc.?
I talk a lot to colleagues, older ones, too, who in this respect are relatively helpless, while young people sometimes exaggerate things by going into platforms in which a 45-year-old can’t find his way around. These are then “pressure groups” in which no one is interested. Today you have to have a much broader perspective: in terms of communicating, one has to move from a conservative mindset to a quite open way of thinking I think these are the new marketing challenges which a gallery today has to face.
What are the likely changes in the specific tasks performed by your employees?
We used to have one person who did everything, today we have three people. One employee only writes press copy and carries out public relations – this was immediately noticeable because people reacted immediately and enthusiastically and appeared at exhibition openings. We are shortly going to hire a blog writer whose job will be to conduct research into how well our gallery is represented in blogs all over the world and how our target group is depicted accordingly.
Restructuring in the galleries must happen.
I believe a gallery today has to function like an agency – one works with freelancers on a certain project or a certain task.
You say that you are observing an enlargement of and not a shift in target groups. Are there special platforms for this which you consider important in order to communicate with this new group of buyers?
We are represented on many digital platforms – at the present time, I wouldn’t evaluate these more specifically. I consider what you are doing with the blog very important. There are regions like Stuttgart, Bielefeld, and Nuremberg, where a relatively large number of people live who are truly interested in art and also have the financial resources. However, as these are places which don’t have art fairs I’m not able to address them unless one of our artists is having an exhibition there and I attend the opening. That is why I agree that regional platforms can function well and are always an enrichment for the art trade, allowing interest in a target group based on that location to be developed.
One has to work with a clear purpose in mind because the various platforms also fulfill various tasks, and address various people. Before we began with Instagram in the summer of 2017 I spent a lot of time talking with a creative director with a great deal of agency experience and active collectors who use Instagram. I asked them how they regard themselves and what is important to them. They were really interested in contacts which show them new artists, aspects or work. This explains our decision: On our Instagram account, we show only reproductions of selected artwork from our exhibitions. 90% are reproductions of works which present the most exciting, insightful views. In the meantime we have 700 followers and receive some 450 “Likes” in a single day – this is, of course, an indication that people are looking at and accepting the whole thing.
What interfaces with other disciplines such as architecture do you see?
We don’t involve ourselves in these disciplines. It is admittedly a personal interest of mine, which means it is an area which I am never tired of looking at, but then I would open a private blog.
If you use a medium, then you also have to be in a position to analyze it, to challenge and question what you see there.
You have to analyze it: Who is using my page, who do I want to invite, who shall I share a link with? These are all details which in the next few years will play a major role in communication. One wants to make people curious and tell stories. In the glut of pictures, events, and communication a gallery, in the final analysis, has to seek a path where it recognizes: This is how we can address the right people.
… in other words, very target group oriented …
… yes, and very analytical. And exactly the same thing holds for art fairs. We analyze them very precisely: Is this fair sensible for us as a gallery and for our artists? I think that dealing with the new media has become a more conscious decision because beforehand one has to consider very carefully how one is going to enter into it because forces and reactions are always triggered over which one has little control. Of course, one doesn’t want to control everything, but by the same token, one wants to guide things in a certain direction. We can see this in our current exhibition of works by Julia Jansen, which has been greeted enthusiastically: We would like to maintain this level of attention. This is exactly what we are better able to do today with the media we have at our disposal.
When we used to place advertisements in ARTFORUM, FRIEZE and so on, there was a huge amount of waste circulation: We didn’t know who would react; we didn’t receive any direct feedback. Today this is completely different. Nonetheless, with 450 Instagram Likes one has to be able to say what this actually means. How many collectors are among the 450 and how many curators? We look at this together and analyse the figures.
With all the financial pressures on them, are galleries in a position today to strike out in new directions?
For me, this is exactly the reason why one should work together. I studied art, then landed a job in advertising and was creative director of Ogilvy’s and other big agencies. Even back then I noticed: As a team player you advance much faster in a short amount of time than you would if you pursue a “Lonely Cowboy” strategy. In the art trade, there are still people who think: I can do that on my own.
That is simply an illusion! Today one cannot do it alone.
Because the levels at which one has to work today as a gallery owner are so manifold, to some extent very difficult to analyze and not transparent. I simply have to collaborate with more people.
This was also the reason why I laid down my office as spokesman for the Köln Galerien (Cologne Galleries) in the autumn and said at a plenary meeting:
We have to set up a board.
We now have a board consisting of five galleries in Cologne who have taken over the office of spokesperson collectively. We sit down together and distribute the tasks: You do that with the App, you know your way around politics and suddenly everything functions. In the time it used to take to deal with one matter, we can now deal with five items. This is what I also decided on the Board of the DC Open: five Cologne and five Düsseldorf galleries meet every three months and discuss where we want to go.
You also have to consider: What interests the visitors? That’s why we integrated “Okey Dokey” for new galleries in the DC Open last year. Partner galleries from London, New York, and Paris were also involved, which was immediately noticed by the international press. Because the young galleries aren’t yet in a position to finance the format themselves from the advertising and marketing side, the older galleries took on this task in the framework of the DC Open board. For me, this is a professional way of moving forward. Somewhere or other each one becomes the “enemy” of the other, but at the end of the day we are all of us moving on the same plane; we all have the same problems – and these we can only solve together. What the individual in this kind of “Holding Strategy” develops for himself, is in turn left up to the creativity and financial discretion of each separate gallery.
In my opinion, we as gallery owners in our particular field – as opposed to many other business enterprises – have a great deal of leeway as very few obstacles are placed in our path and we have every opportunity to cooperate with each other. This is, I believe, the pioneering role which one can take on outwardly at least. Unfortunately, I don’t see any understanding for this among politicians. For them it’s too wild – but this is precisely the attraction of our profession. It can change completely from one day to the next and yet we will still manage to find a strategy …
If you want to make faster and faster progress, you have no choice but to work together.
Interview: Eva Karl. Photos: Eva Karl & Simon Vogel. Reproduction or publication of the pictures and the text – even in part – requires written permission.
Translation: Karen Christenson
Many, many thanks, Mr. and Mrs. Rehbein for this comprehensive insight into your work! I’m already looking forward to Art Cologne in April and the coming DC Open.
The photos were taken in the context of the exhibition of works by the artist JULIA JANSEN.
Click here on the Website, Facebook and Instagram page for more information on the Thomas Rehbein Galerie in Cologne. In addition, look here for information on the Initiative Köln Galerien and the DC Open, which will take place once again in September 2018.
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